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January 13, 2008 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Novel Research Filter: Help me describe phone culture/ etiquette in the 70's prior to the advent of answering machines.

I'm writing a story set in the 1970's. In the story the protagonist has to call the librarian at his law firm late at night regarding a research question. Would the law firm have had a paid answering service and would the service have passed on the message to the librarian late at night?

If the protagonist had called the librarian directly sometime after 10:30 PM, would a normal person in that era have picked up the call thinking it was important or just let it ring. Would she/he be angry to find the call was work related?

How would you describe in general the phone culture of the time in terms of how important messages were passed on by phone. Was there a cultural conditioning regarding what was important to share and what wasn't. I'm sure it wasn't like communication today, anything anytime. Now I see people talking on their cell phones in the airport at 5AM, on the east coast, and can't imagine such conversations happening in the 70's. Am I wrong about this?
posted by Xurando to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
If your protagonist is calling the firm's librarian at home after 10:30 pm to ask a work related question, yes of course that wopuld have been considered out of bounds outside a special arrangement. Now if it's a senior partner, or the question is truly urgent, the ordinary response of mild anger or annoyance would presumably be reduced.

Not quite the same, but when I was in college in 1972 or 1973 I remember being woken up by a call at about 2:30 am and speaking rather rudely to the person calling, until he clarified that a close relative of my roommate had just died.
posted by Rain Man at 5:11 PM on January 13, 2008


At least in the 70s middle-class suburban household I grew up in, a ringing phone was never ignored. Calls which came in during dinner time (5-6 pm-ish) were answered with no small amount of private grousing about the impropriety of calling "when people are trying to eat" and the phone ringing after 9 pm or before 9 am was usually received with some trepidation as a phone ringing during the off hours usually meant bad news was about to be passed.
posted by jamaro at 5:21 PM on January 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


When I was a boy in the 70s, if the phone rang after 10pm at night, it was assumed to be an emergency. If it wasn't, my parents were quite cross.

Businesses did have answering services. But many had answering machines, even in the early 70s. Mike Hammer had an answering machine in Kiss Me Deadly, a film that was made in 1955. Every episode of the Rockford Files opened with Jim Rockford's answering machine, and that show started in 1974. The PhoneMate was a popular brand in the 70s, used a reel-to-reel magnetic tape, and could hold up to 20 messages. You can learn more about the history of the answering machine here.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:25 PM on January 13, 2008


I worked at a telephone answering service in the 90s whilst in university, so I wouldn't be surprised if a law office in the 70s would have used such a service.

We probably would not have called a law firm's librarian at night, however, lawyers would have wanted the service to contact someone only for a legal emergency--e.g. the time that someone called the law office as he'd just murdered his wife.

I still am startled and a little concerned if someone phones us after 9 p.m. at home. I figure it has to be important. I'm old-school, though, and don't socialise on the phone at all.

Growing up, we had a party line and no answering machine. If someone was home, they answered. If they weren't, it rung. If you really didn't want to be disturbed, you took the receiver off. (And I grew up dialing a telephone.)
posted by Savannah at 5:37 PM on January 13, 2008


I'm writing a story set in the 1970's. In the story the protagonist has to call the librarian at his law firm late at night regarding a research question. Would the law firm have had a paid answering service and would the service have passed on the message to the librarian late at night?

I think the lawyer would have to call the librarian's home number, whether in the 70s or today. An answering service for the law firm would probably not even have the librarian's home number, unless there was some prior special arrangement. The answering service would relay the messages the next business day. (Aside from emergency numbers for on-call doctors.) Now, it's possible that any company can have any arrangement they want with the answering service, but I can't imagine a librarian being on the list of people who should be called at 10:30 at night to answer a question (as beloved and wonderful and essential as ALL WE MEFITES know they are!)

Note that according to the FCC, the PhoneMate was available in 1971. As a teen in the 70s, it was not extremely unusual to talk to an answering machine, even when calling my friends' homes. it would be no stretch for a law firm to have one.

If the protagonist had called the librarian directly sometime after 10:30 PM, would a normal person in that era have picked up the call thinking it was important or just let it ring. Would she/he be angry to find the call was work related?

My house got plenty of calls after 10:30 pm, and never thought anything of it. After 11, the response might be more along the lines of "Who could be calling at this hour?" But in Detroit, the night news came on at 11 (Eastern time), and plenty of working people stayed up to watch it. Plenty also watched Johnny Carson starting at 11:30. So, in my experience, a relatively late call didn't really raise eyebrows, and if something was important (like forgetting what to read for homework by the next day) I never hesitated to call someone about it. In my frame of reference, I can't imagine "just letting it ring." We are more likely to do that now, because we know voicemail will get it.

How would you describe in general the phone culture of the time in terms of how important messages were passed on by phone. Was there a cultural conditioning regarding what was important to share and what wasn't. I'm sure it wasn't like communication today, anything anytime. Now I see people talking on their cell phones in the airport at 5AM, on the east coast, and can't imagine such conversations happening in the 70's. Am I wrong about this?

Depending on how vital the potential receiver thinks they are, they might update the service when they change locations, but this was seen as self-important, unless you were a doctor, and even the doctors usually had pagers. (There is s running gag in Annie Hall where Alvy's friend calls his service every time he arrives at a new destination to leave the number where he can be reached.) In my experience, there were never any qualms about calling someone just to talk. However, you pretty much had to do so when you knew they were home (or if they could take such calls at work.) So it was "anything," just not "any time." I have actually found a dramatic decrease in the "calls just to talk" since the saturation of email and instant messaging.

I hope my rambling gives you something you can use.
posted by The Deej at 5:41 PM on January 13, 2008


I think that was "Play It Again Sam," not "Annie Hall."
posted by post punk at 5:51 PM on January 13, 2008


Another thing about home phones in the 1970s in the suburbs -- residential phones were almost always answered by a person, usually the mom figure or one of the kids. (Now home phones are hardly ever answered, at least in my world.) And of course phones still had cords, so the person who answered would call out (sometimes loudly, repeatedly) to the person whose call it was to come to the phone.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:15 PM on January 13, 2008


Also, I don't know anything about business answering machines of that era, but I vaguely recall that until the Bell breakup* answering machines available to private lines had to be leased from the phone company and were paid for via a monthly fee tacked onto your bill, making them less common.
*might have been earlier but I do remember home answering machines only becoming ubiquitous post-breakup.

That would be reason enough to keep my frugal Yankee dad from signing up for one; he was cheesed off enough over having to lease the handsets and the house ringer**.

**the house ringer was a feature of 60s-built homes, mounted in a centrally located place in the house, hard wired for power and would ring instead of the individual phone-sets ringing. It also often did double duty as a doorbell.

On preview: and adding onto what ClaudiaCenter wrote, a lot of times the phone was wall mounted face height in the most ridiculously public part of the house, such as between the kitchen and the dining room and you've have to carry on conversations standing there unless your parents happened to have coughed up for an extra long curly cord. Not that I have any traumatically embarrassing memories of trying to carry on phone conversations with my first boyfriend while my entire family eavesdropped from the dinette.
posted by jamaro at 6:30 PM on January 13, 2008


as a retired lawyer (who also grew up dialing telephones) i can tell you that if a lawyer in the 1970s had an urgent research question in the middle of the night, he or she would be much more likely to go to the firm's law library and do the research himself/herself. lawyers do know how to do legal research; that and b.s.ing are over 90% of our skillset.
posted by bruce at 6:32 PM on January 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


In my 70's experience, ringing phones were always answered. Telemarketers were much less of a factor, since predictive dialers were not in use. A late call would probably have been a wrong number, or a relative taking advantage of the lower rate for long distance that kicked in at 11:00 p.m. Ringing phones weren't ignored unless you were certain it was someone you didn't want to hear from.

I'm less sure about the answering service, so the following is all speculation. Wouldn't it depend on the nature of the law firm? There would be some provision for reaching people at the office after hours. If the main number was ringing it could be ignored, but they would have had a private number that anyone working late in the office would answer. A firm large enough to have a librarian may have also had a 24-hour answering service. If there was such an answering service, you could bet it would have a current listing of all employees' home numbers, and if the protagonist was an attorney for the firm, the answering service would call anyone he asked them to.
posted by Snerd at 6:44 PM on January 13, 2008


Before about 1980, a late-night phone call that did not include the words 'dead' or 'severely injured' would be considered really noxious (as the other class major of late-night calls was 'drunk again').

One did not reason: "I have a problem, and a certain other person, who does not have this problem, could, nevertheless, help me solve it right now, at 2:30 in the morning" was a reason for calling said person.

It still isn't especially reasonable.
posted by hexatron at 8:08 PM on January 13, 2008


We have an answering service where I work in addition to pagers, voicemail, and everything else. They generally have contact information to get hold of people at any time, and if the person calling is persuasive enough they can often get through, although it becomes exponentially more difficult after hours unless you are the person on call. Generally the way it works is that the answering service calls and tells me they have Dr. X. on the line; if it were someone I had never heard of or didn't want to talk to I would have them take a message or otherwise divert the call. Unfortunately it is never the case that I can avoid the call, I always end up telling them to put the call through, then rounding up the rest of the call team for a case.

In other words, answering services are still around, and one of their functions is and probably always has been to screen after hours calls for their employer.
posted by TedW at 8:52 PM on January 13, 2008


In the 1970s, large law firms would have had an attended switchboard -- and quite possibly a 24/7 attended switchboard. (Large law firms still mostly have attended switchboards, and yes some are even still 24/7.) Small firms would have had a doctor-type answering service.

Big law firms would have at least a skeleton crew of support staff working overnight on weekdays and some weekends -- certainly typists/word processors (back when word processing took place on pre-PC microcomputers down in data centers, and lawyers worked on legal pads), and maybe even a librarian or two.

A general number answering machine at a law firm in the 1970s would be very surprising -- they just weren't a suitable solution for getting messages for lots of different people (kind of like how a general voicemail is unsuitable now). I don't think that answering machines were compatible with 1970s style PBXs for individual extensions.

Switchboard operators would have the home numbers of everyone who worked for the firm, but would be very stingy giving them out -- but not to a lawyer for the firm. Also, lawyers would have a take-home directory of home numbers of everyone who worked for the firm.

Finally, then as now, important people had to be reachable. Not necessarily in the back of cabs, but definitely their secretary or service would know where they would be, and would have a phone number, during working hours and where they would be staying that night (at home or a hotel) or where a message could be left for them while en route. A law firm librarian would almost certainly not fit into that category of people important enough to maintain reachability.
posted by MattD at 9:11 PM on January 13, 2008


Pre-voicemail and cordless phone etiquette required you (as the caller) to let the phone ring at least ten times before you gave up and assumed they weren't home. Might not be germaine to this scene but might be helpful elsewhere.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 4:20 AM on January 14, 2008


Another part of the etiquette required the important people to call in to their assisstants/secretaries and report their locations as it changed. Picture Dr. Beeper from Caddyshack.
posted by gjc at 6:25 PM on January 14, 2008


Just to be precise, the era of "prior to the advent of answering machines" isn't just the 1970s but extends into the middle-80s.
posted by Rash at 4:56 PM on January 15, 2008


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